Our first major challenge on our trip from San Diego to the Panama Canal aboard Yellow Rose, our 1976 Valiant 40, was crossing the notorious area called the Gulf of Tehuantepec along the Mexican Pacific coast. The Gulf is known for the high winds that come sweeping down between the mountain ranges west of Salina Cruz. The area between Salina Cruz and Puerto Madero can be the worst part, so it is best to cover the distance as quickly as possible when the weather window is good.
We read a lot about how to safely traverse this area and talked to several sailing companions who had traveled through this area successfully. Staying close to the beach and out of the high seas was paramount for a safe transit. Going offshore was not advised. So we elected to follow the advice and recommendations of those who had made the trip before us. These winds are predictable, and, with an understanding of their cause, a good weatherfax, and patience, one could safely cross the Gulf.
We had been en route to Puerto Huatulco to meet up with several friends we had been cruising with, but the engine had been giving us fits and we were not ready to push it. We could not find the reason for its regular overheating, and it was losing fresh water at an alarming rate. We would have to shut it down and let it cool off before we could refill with fresh water.
As it turned out, our friends left the day before we arrived, so we were alone in the beautiful anchorage. We planned on being there only a few days until we got a good weather window, at which point we would obtain our zarpe (exit papers) out of the country and head for Costa Rica. With favorable weather this is usually a four-day run, but one thing we have learned the hard way is not to set a schedule. In this part of the world, schedules have no meaning. You go when the weather patterns say go or stay put when they don’t. But we had a schedule set for us by my brother-in-law, who planned on meeting us in Costa Rica for a quick trip to the canal zone. We were going to go as soon as the weather cooperated with us.
We had been getting wonderful weatherfaxes three times a day from NMG in Belle Chasse, La. We were looking for a low pressure area over Texas/Louisiana. When this occurs, the winds blowing over the Gulf Of Mexico change from the northeast to the southeast. This, in turn, affects the winds in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, allowing one to traverse the Gulf safely. The "Tehuantepecker" winds are created by an intense continental high pressure over Texas/Louisiana that causes strong north winds in the Gulf of Mexico. These winds then funnel through the isthmus and hit the Gulf of Tehuantepec, often blowing at twice the speed they had in the Gulf of Mexico.
We had been in Puerto Huatulco since February 2. At 1500 UTC on February 13, the weatherfax chart showed a roughly 36- to 38-hour window to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The shortest route is to sail straight across the Gulf on a direct course for Cabo Elena in Costa Rica. However, this course takes you about 80 to 100 miles offshore, and we would be in the worst of a Tehuantepecker if it were to occur. We decided to take the longer route and sail with "one foot on the beach." We would sail a mile off the beach where we would still be in 40 feet of water. If the offshore winds of a Tehuantepecker started we would have some protection from the wind and the seas wouldn’t have time to build. We motorsailed out of the harbor and found light winds. The seas were flat, so we continued to use the engine to gain as many miles as we could before we were hit by the infamous gulf winds. Unexpected fog
After about four hours we experienced a weather phenomenon we hadn’t seen in more than a year: fog! We watched as it slowly rolled in over us, put us in pea soup conditions for about an hour and a half and then slowly rolled out again. How odd. As we continued along we were distressed to find that the engine was continuously overheating. Every 1 1/2 to two hours we had to stop the engine and refill it with fresh water. We were sailing close to shore, which became quite worrisome when we had to shut down the engine. We’d attempt to sail (or drift) the boat away from shore while one of us went below to try to find the problem. We knew that Puerto Madero has the facilities we needed to fix the problem, but that was 260 nautical miles from our starting point at Huatulco. The next 80 miles from Huatulco to Salina Cruz is the area that was causing us the most concern. If the winds picked up, they’d be on the nose, and, if that occurred, we decided we would turn around and head back to Huatulco.
The 13th and most of the 14th provided us with calm seas and warm sunny skies. We continued to have overheating problems. Neither one of us had gotten much sleep as every hour and a half or so we did the overheating shuffleCarol would sail/drift the boat away from shore while dodging the shrimp boats that were out in full force all night, and I would turn off and cool down the engine. We had prayed for a windless passage of this notorious area but hadn’t planned on the engine problems. We discussed turning back, but we dreaded this passage, and while we had a weather window we wanted to try and make it. We were afraid that if we turned back it might be another week or two before we would get another break in the weather.
By 2100 UTC on the 14th, we were past Salina Cruz and our spirits were high. We had made it past the area that would cause us our worst winds. With daylight we decided to turn the engine off for a couple of hours to let it cool down enough that I could take it apart in more detail to try to find the problem. There still wasn’t any wind, so we let the boat drift away from shore and enjoyed the calm and quiet. The Gulf was as flat as a mirror. The weather window was good for two days, but the engine problem had slowed us down significantly, and we began to worry that the window might close on us before we were all the way across the Gulf.The sleeping giant awakens
We were five miles from the coastline at 2143 UTC when Carol noticed some catspaws on the water coming from the West. The tell-tale of a breeze. The Tehuantepec would come from the northeast. We weren’t sure what that meant, but we became concerned when we noticed all the fishing boats heading full throttle towards the shore. With just a catspaw of wind, Carol wanted to put two reefs in the mainsail. We had not quite gotten the second reef tied in when all hell broke loose. The winds clocked 180° and climbed to 30 to 40 knots in just minutes. We rolled in the jib and, with a double-reefed main and staysail, began beating our way on a port tack back to the coastline. Progress was slow and hard. It took us more than three hours to make up the five-mile distance and to turn parallel to the coast line. We wanted to be just outside the breaker line where the seas were flatter. Yellow Rose was pitching, slamming, and crashing into steep seas that built up from nowhere. The wind had now increased to 50 knots-plus. We were definitely in a Tehuantepecker!
Once we reached the coastline the seas did flatten down, and our ride was somewhat calmer. The crashing surf just off our port side was a reminder of the small line we were on between big steep seas and flatter seas, between being bashed about and sailing in relative safety. The wind was blowing the tops off the breakers, keeping us drenched. Yellow Rose, heeled over about 15° to 30°, was performing well, but Carol and I were taking a beating. There was no room for a steering error. We also knew that this wind could last from 24 hours to weeks. The noise was deafeningwe had to yell at each other to communicate. Hand-steering was difficult, and constant vigilance was required. The wind came from the beam to just forward of the beam. It would seem that it should come from the quarter, but the mountains in this area act like a wall, letting the wind bounce off them toward the sea.
We were aware that the Mexican fishing boats also use the same near-shore area where we were sailing to protect them from the same seas and winds; this would compound our problem of navigating safely at night. Many of these vessels turn off their lights at night when anchored. We also had to pass three river entrances that were a major concern because of the changing depth of the water, increased height of the short chop coming out, and the possibility of hidden obstructions. Each of the inlets had sand bars that had built out offshore that would also have to be negotiated. The radar did not show us any obstructions, but it did allow us to see the river entrances. Dangerous river entrances
We found the wind increased by 10 to 15 knots at the entrances, so it became more hazardous to traverse them. We had to sail offshore a mile to get around each entrance, which then meant we had to beat back to the coastline. We were not getting much sleep due to the weather conditions. We both needed to be on watch as we navigated this area.
When we arrived at a lighthouse (15° 57′ N, 93° 57′ W) on February 15, we found the wind had abated to five knots. Seas were calm, and there were many ships and fishing vessels anchored all around us. Someone turned off the wind machine. Should we anchor, or were we out of the winds? It was the middle of the night, pitch black, and this was an unknown anchorage. It was decision time. We were exhausted, beat up, and in need of some fun. Our information indicated that the winds would abate from this point east, so we opted to continue on. Within five miles we were back in the high winds of 40-plus knots, but these began diminishing as the dawn broke. In fact, the sunrise was beautiful, we were having a terrific sail with the boat performing beautifully. The winds were now on the beam, and as we remained close to shore we didn’t have the big seas. The air was warming our cold, damp bodies and giving us hope that we were out of the worst wind. It was time to shake out the reefs and pull out the jib. As we did this, our speed remained at more than seven knots. We decided it was time to take turns napping. It was time to address the engine problem again, but after hours of trying to find the source of the overheating, we gave up. It would wait until Puerto Madero. The coastline along this part of Mexico is spectacular. Volcanoes in the distance, small fishing villages with yelling children and staring adults as we sailed by just beyond the breakers. The beaches looked wonderful and inviting.
Puerto Madero turned out to be a wonderful relief from this part of the trip. We had battled our way across the Gulf and cleared our first big voyaging hurdle.